Sad as it is to admit, there are probably a fair number of Catholics in the United States who have come to realize in recent years that the sacraments celebrated in their parishes or communities were presided over by bishops and priests who were later discovered to have molested children and minors. As the American bishops are in retreat this week to pray about the abuse scandal, it seemed appropriate to me that, since I have neglected the Reformation/Luther stream of posts for some time, I might reflect upon a major question that Luther addressed in the sixteenth century and that some Catholics, at least, may have pondered in the twenty-first century: does the faith of the presider affect the validity and effectiveness of the sacrament itself? This was a major concern of Lutheran theology in its sparring with Roman Catholic doctrine.
It was the November 8, 2018 post on this stream where I discussed Luther’s spiritual awakening: that the Word of God [Scriptural Revelation] was the provenance of every Christian conscience, that God’s active will to save extended to every man or woman of sincere and searching heart. This revelation of Luther’s comes forth from a Catholic age where “doing” could easily outrun “believing.” The sale of indulgences was offensive to Luther because of its optics as much as its questionable theology, with the appearance that salvation could be purchased in cash without the necessary change of heart. Moreover, the Augustinian reformer questioned whether the Church, as an institution, could “guarantee” salvation; for Luther, imposing middlemen and ritual between the direct revelation of God to the individual soul who opened his Bible and personally embraced the saving power of God.
Luther did not intend to destroy the Church but to return it to its pristine holiness in the Renaissance thinking of Ressourcement, i.e., a return to the ancient sources and practices of the early Church. For Luther the discoveries of ancient Church writings and particularly the new and much improved translations of the Bible gave him much to compare with the contemporary Church in which he lived. The sacraments of the Church itself were of significance. Luther did not believe that biblical justification existed for many of the Catholic sacraments; he identified only two, Baptism and Eucharist, as being directly commanded by Christ. Given his adamant belief on this subject, it is nearly impossible to imagine his remaining in the Roman Catholic Communion, but his theology of sacraments contains a powerful pastoral message worthy of consideration in the Catholic Church’s present moment of trial.
Luther, to put it directly, believed that all the works of religion—most notably the sacraments—must have an existential reality of experience of God. It is no accident that Luther, among his many achievements, composed a German hymnal of powerful songs which gathered up the full experience of the faithful. One of the most famous of his works is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” There was a window in the 1960’s when the new Catholic English Mass hymnals borrowed very heavily from Lutherans. For whatever reason, the American experience of Catholic song was quickly drained of its Lutheran testosterone and has devolved into cruise ship lounge singing. But I digress…
Luther believed, too, that the reception of holy communion should likewise be experienced as a powerful encounter with Jesus Christ. For this reason, he promoted the reception of the Precious Blood for all the faithful, a cause which Catholicism embraced after Vatican II. It will be argued in some texts and catechetical sources that Luther denied Real Presence, or the reality of Christ in the bread and the wine. This is not exactly true. What Luther objected to was the medieval or scholastic use of the term “transubstantiation” to describe what happens at the consecration. Traditional Catholic belief to this day holds that at the words of consecration the reality of the bread is changed into Christ’s living presence while the “externals” such as taste and appearance remain the same. Luther preferred the term “consubstantiation” which implied that the bread itself did not change from bread, but rather that the living Christ was present to each believer in the receiving experience of bread and cup.
Another way to put this is that Luther shuddered at any Catholic ritual which looked like human magic, in this case saying words that made the bread something else. In the Latin Mass of Luther’s day, the phrasing for the consecration of the bread is rendered “Hoc est enim corpus meum” or “For this is my body….” It is worth noting that the magician’s phrase, “hocus pocus,” is a play on the Latin words of consecration, as well as a barb at the idea of sinful men working “magic” on altars for sizeable Mass stipends.
Luther believed very strongly that the Mass must be “authentic” in terms of faith and intention, and that the priest must believe in what he is doing and bring an authentic Biblical faith to worship. If Luther were alive today, he might surprise us by his reaction to our current difficulties as considerably less widespread compared to his day, because it is hard to imagine the state of clergy in the sixteenth century. It is no accident that in response to the Lutheran Reformation, Roman Catholicism—in the Council of Trent 1543-63-- mandated the existence of diocesan seminaries where future priests could be screened, educated, and spiritually formed.
If you Google “Luther and priesthood,” you will come upon long lists of entries entitled “Luther and the Priesthood of the Faithful,” a term which expresses a line of demarcation between Lutheran and Roman Catholic thought on the nature and meaning of priests. For Luther, the primordial ordination sacrament was baptism. In his day Luther despaired of the Western Catholic Church’s leadership and clergy to reform themselves from within, and in his later years he turned to German princes telling them that “they must now be the rulers of the spiritual realm, too.” [Metaxas, p. 186]
There is a curious parallel here between Luther’s assertion that clergy could not police themselves in the 1500’s and the call throughout the United States today that civil law enforcement and states’ attorneys are the only legitimate and trustworthy authorities to purge the priesthood of pedophiles. While there is a considerable argument for this position, based upon decades of frustration in the United States, it is also important to recall that Luther’s thinking also led the way to the extremes of John Calvin’s church-state where police patrolled the aisles and arrested anyone dozing off during the sermon.
If I can speak for Luther, I think he would remind us—correctly—that baptism does render us priests in the sense that every one of us is responsible for the holiness of the Church and the integrity of our leadership. One of my Catholic professors, looking back on the Reformation era, described it as the “democratization of the Dark Night of Soul.” That is, all the baptized entered the mysteries of the faith that had previously been the world of clerics and cloisters.
In that sense, the baptized Catholic needs to take a loving but critical eye toward oneself and the priests with whom we live and worship. In the United States, for example, honesty and transparency are often in short supply. I am happy to report that my home diocese received the honor of maximum score across the U.S. among all 187 dioceses for available public examination of finances. This enthusiasm has been tempered somewhat by the reality that nearly 50% of American dioceses reveal nothing of their finances publicly. Do Catholics in these dioceses simply pay, pray, and obey, and thus are they tacitly accepting the veil of secrecy behind which a good deal of mischief and ungodly deed may be taking place? Luther would lay this responsibility for reform on our heads as a responsibility of baptism.